Here is a vague topic. But it is romantic, like the romantic poetry of the great Percy Bysshe Shelley. A typical social scientist who values justice more than efficiency is perpetually enticed by this topic. And it has certainly got the heart-breaking as well as mind-igniting potential with respect to the frustrations and jubilations of current economics students in making sense of Good Economics as economics beyond applied maths or mathematics of maximization (Radford, 2015).
Good Life has traditionally been the philosopher’s quest. The problem with this enquiry is that good life means a great variety of different things to different people (Mueller, 2016). Instead of drawing from this subjectivist quest, I take good life as the actualization of development measured by the Human Development Index (which aggregates real income, education and life expectancy), or the Genuine Progress Indicator (which, amongst other elements, combines real income, social inequality and environmental sustainability) or other new indicators of wellbeing that have been proposed and constructed in very recent times.
To put it differently, we can take good life as dignified existence of all individuals (without discrimination whatsoever, be it ethnic, religious or political, or based on gender or economic status) in terms of guaranteeing a set of ethics-based non-negotiable human rights—civil, political, economic, social and cultural, especially the latter three (Branco, 2012). In this regard, there are two documents of relevance to us from the General Assembly of the United Nations on 16 December 1966—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The latter establishes a set of rights for a dignifying life as follows: (a) the right to self-determination of all peoples along with the right to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources; (b) the right to work; (c) the rights at work, which include the right to a wage sufficient enough to provide a decent life to the worker and his/her family; safe and healthy working conditions; and paid vacations; (d) the right to form trade unions and to go on strike; and (e) the right of everyone, regardless of their having a job or not, to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions; (f) the right to social security, by means of protection schemes in illness and old age and protection of mothers for a reasonable period before and after childbirth and protection of children and young persons from economic and social exploitation by instituting age limits below which the paid employment of child labour is to be prohibited and punishable by law; and (g) the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and meantal health, to progressively free education and to cultural, artistic and scientific freedom (Branco, 2012).
Good Society has conventionally been a political project. Keeping in mind justice to be more important to people than efficiency, it is, as put by a Labour Party pressure group (in the UK), one that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic than the society we are living in now (Compass, Undated). In light of this, we need to equal out as many life chances as possible. This means tackling inequalities based on wealth, opportunity, gender, sexual orientation, class, caste, race/ethnicity, age and disability. Environmental sustainability is a challenge for us to consider future generations instead of getting obsessed with ourselves. Our society is currently constructed in environmentally unsustainable ways and unless radical changes are made, we are heading towards a doomed future of runaway climate change and mass species extinction. We also need to democratize our communities, workplaces, public services, and civil society. Greater equality, sustainability and innovation are not possible without democratic structures and empowered citizens. Universal, well-funded, democratic and publicly delivered services (like healthcare, education and housing) are integral to a good society as they help us all to achieve our potential. The state, represented by government at all levels, globally and nationally, must help bring about the conditions for a good society by being responsive, democratic and empowering. Pluralism is also valued in good society as it encompasses social solidarity by bringing together different political parties and organizations through common sharing of the core values of equality, democracy and sustainability.
Now, where is the economy, and economics in this discourse? An economy is the way a society produces and distributes goods and services. And a good economy serves good society and not the other way round. Economics is about bringing about the good economy. It should better be termed “political economy” because all economic decisions are political decisions. Thus, good economics is subservient to the political design of good society (Kellerman et al. 2012).
Good society ensures a good or decent life which in turn feeds into good society formation and consolidation and innovation. For John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of the 20thcentury, economic growth, driven by human selfishness, was a means to the achievement of the end of a reasonable standard of living for all. He had surmised that for at least another 100 years we should not bother about the ethical considerations underlying good life and good society. Till the Post Scarcity Economy arrives as the El Dorado or the Promised Land, good-life-questions of equity and distribution or environmental sustainability should not be paid attention. By contrast, Schumacher, representing the Buddhist approach to good economics, questioned Keynes’s glorification of production as unambiguously desirable because it gives us prosperity and employment. He pointed to the rapacious nature of the industry and soul-destroying quality of much employment and the destruction of nature or eco-system. For him, work should not be treated as a disutility and a chore and a cost and instead it should be part of the good life, contributing to ennobling self-realisation. Goods are not more important than people and consumption is not more important than creative activity. He questioned the insidious quality of the assumptions of economics, for instance, that anything that is found to be an impediment to economic growth is a shameful thing—i.e., uneconomic as it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money.
The Keynes-Schumacher divide on the above lines, well established by Chick (2012), points to a classic case of the conflict between means and ends. For Keynes, economic activity based on greed was the means to bring society to a position where a good life could be enjoyed. But Schumacher thought economic activity should be made part of the good life! This classic case of conflict is there even today, even more.
By today’s modern economics, or simply economics, is now meant the mainstream or neoclassical economics–the dominant school of thought in academia, within offices of government and the media despite the fact that we can identify at least twenty schools of economic thought. And this economics is not good economics because it does not promote human rights-based political economy as mentioned above, and therefore, good society and good life. Branco (2012) explains this at length lest it should be mistaken as an emotional swindling of the great economics profession serving the queen of social sciences. A brief substantiation is as follows. First, economics does not aim at full employment. At the macro level, a certain level of unemployment is quite useful to achieve stable prices. At the micro level, in order to maximize profits, firms minimize the use of productive factors and therefore create the smallest number of jobs possible. Work is saved by treating humans as resources. If humans are instead treated as citizens holding non-negotiable rights, there will not be policies that take people as disposable assets or plain liabilities. Secondly, not all jobs that are created, conform to right to work and rights at work specifications as mentioned above in the face of labour market deregulation policies like wage flexibility and reduction in job security, erosion of unemployment benefits, fostering of temping and involuntary part-time jobs, promotion of trade union irrelevancy, reduction of the working classes’ standard of living and so on and so forth. Thirdly, by singing the power and glory of the markets as the infallible means of rationally allocating resources, individuals who cannot pay for goods and services are excluded. Fourthly, it does not promote cultural freedom because it takes some cultures as inferior and as obstacles to the expression of economic rationality and growth. Finally, it considers itself above political debate and thus erodes the democratic idea that has been haunting the humankind since immemorial times. Major economic decisions are not submitted to collective preferences. Politics is seen as an obstacle to the correct choices on the part of the agents. In so doing, economics is not at the service of the people through political ferment. Instead, it subjugates them to its inhuman logic. Since there is only one best way of knowing any particular system, there is only one solution to each problem. As such, democratic debate and decision making are useless and counterproductive as they lead people to go for wrong solutions. By contrast, the human rights perspective is compatible with pluralism that factors in alternative views. Mainstream economics generates expert advice as the best advice. In contrast, the rights perspective promotes decision making through consultation and debate and therefore promotes the democratic cause.
The above attack on mainstream economics as bad economics may now have to be a lot qualified in light of three very recent developments. First, there are economists who are promoting economics with ethical content, and thereby sketching out arguments and constructing pillars for a reformed capitalist model known as “Decent Capitalism” as the national and global political project of good society in which good life is embedded (Kellerman et al., 2012). The basic new idea here is that the market is a good servant, but a bad master of any society and so it must be given clear tasks, clear rules and clear limits in order to provide for the basis and frame for the project of a good society. In the process, green growth, more equitable income distribution and the like desirable normative objectives can be realized.
Secondly, in consonance with the above trending, there are economists standing for Economics for Inclusive Prosperity (see Naidu et al. 2019). Born out of the special project called “Democracy’s Promise”, the views of these economists are now beginning to permeate the econ researching, teaching and advisory mill. Briefly, they run like this. Inclusive prosperity is the policy framework, constructed out of the core values of a good society as mentioned above. Neoliberalism or market fetishism “is not the consistent application of modern economics, but its primitive, simplistic perversion.” There is no gainsaying the fact that deregulation, financialisation, dismantling of the welfare state, de-institutionalisation of labour markets, reduction in corporate and progressive taxation, and the pursuit of hyper-globalisation—all culprits behind astonishingly rising inequalities of income and wealth and opportunities—“all seem to be rooted in conventional economic doctrines. The discipline’s focus on markets and incentives, methodological individualism, and mathematical formalism all seem to stand in the way of meaningful, larger-scale economic and social reform”. In short, neoliberalism appears to be just another name for economics and little wonder that as a result, many people view the discipline of economics with outright disgust and hostility. But this storyline misses on the great economics research that is more applied and empirical, that has occurred since the 1990s, which has indeed acted as a disciplining device against ideological prescriptions. “Recent empirical findings, for example, have found that international trade produces large adverse effects on some local communities; minimum wages do not reduce employment; financial liberalization produces crises rather than faster economic growth. Moreover, economists have “reached out to other disciplines and have incorporated many of their insights. Economic history is experiencing a revival, behavioural economics has put homo economicus on the defensive, and the study of culture has become mainstream. At the centre of the discipline, distributional considerations are making a comeback. And economists have been playing an important role in studying the growing concentration of wealth, the costs of climate change, the concentration of important markets, the stagnation of income of the working class, and the changing patterns in social mobility.” Contemporary mainstream economics is, thus “finally breaking free from its market fetishism, offering plenty of tools we can use to make society more inclusive.”
Finally, there is the free, open access textbook titled The Economy, produced by the so-called Core Team (Coreecon, undated) for undergrad courses which is now used for teaching in different parts of the world. This textbook draws on the trends as mentioned above. This is indeed a sound beginning of Good Economics curriculum for Good Society and Good Life (although how national and global governance in this regard will emerge with or without capitalism is a mysterious mystery indeed).
All this is terrific news for current students of economics—especially those who have been bothered about its classroom disconnect with the real world—to pursue the subject with heightened motivation and zeal in order to produce even more relevant and imaginative economic policy ideas for building a good society with good life.
The hardcore Marxists may scoff and laugh at all the above recent romantic euphoria as oxymoronic hogwash as they see Marxist Economics as the only good economics that leads to a good society and good life in terms of communism via transitional socialism. The non-Marxists of various intellectual types, in turn, laugh at the Marxists for not having a grasp of the political and religious psychology and the cultural conditions of the working class to account for its inability to revolt against capitalism in favour of socialism and communism. At the end of the day, there is at least one merit of this vague and yet romantic topic in that the Marxists and non-Marxists can have a hearty laugh at each other’s limitations.
By Annavajhula J.C. Bose
Associate Professor, Department of Economics, SRCC
Branco, Mannuel Couret. 2012. Economics for Human Rights. World Economic Association Conference, Economics and Society: The Ethical Dimension.
Chick, Victoria. 2012. Economics and the Good Life: Keynes and Schumacher. World Economic Association Conference, op.cit.
Compass. Undated. https://www.compassonline.org.uk/ideas/good-society/
Coreecon. Undated. https://www.core-econ.org
Kellerman, Christian et al. 2012. A Decent Capitalism for a Good Society. World Economic Association Conference, op.cit.
Mueller, Steve. 2016. What is the Good Life. Planet of Success Blog. www.planetofsuccess.com/blog2016/what-is-the-good-life/
Naidu, Suresh et al. 2019. Economics after Neoliberalism. Boston Review. February 15.
Radford, Peter. 2015. Why Mainstream Economic Models Make Little Sense. Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics. February 15.